Conservation farming

Conservation farming: no tillage? Then how does it grow?

With conservation farming, the soil works all by itself… And it's good for the planet! How is this possible? And what does it conserve? Answers with Jean-Luc Forrler, agronomic engineer, VIVESCIA's "soil conservation" project manager and coordinator of the VIVESCIAgrosol club. For him, there are three key principles: Limiting soil disturbance, cover crops, and changing crop rotation.

Jean-Luc Forrler
Jean-Luc
Forrler
VIVESCIA's "Soil conservation" project manager and coordinator of the VIVESCIAgrosol club.

What is conservation farming?

In fact, it is soil conservation farming. It might even be more appropriate to refer to it as regenerative agriculture, in the sense that we are "regenerating an ecosystem" to make the soil more fertile. The idea is to retain, or even return natural organic matter in the soil. Conservation farming is therefore based on a series of agronomic techniques that promote biodiversity in order to boost the soil's natural potential.

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What are the specificities of soil conservation farming?

First of all, we eliminate tillage in order to minimise soil disturbance and prevent erosion. Left to their own devices, earthworms will turn the soil over excellently and tirelessly. We also need to look after the root system to help water circulate and infiltrate the soil. We use so-called "cover crops" to ensure the soil is always covered. We organise crop rotation with the right combination of cover crops, with legumes – clover, alfalfa, peas – that naturally produce nitrogen, boost micro-biological activity, and facilitate the conversion of plant matter into humus. When you leave crop residue (straw and crop husks) in the field, the resulting organic matter produces a natural fertiliser for grain crops. Then you just need to sow (wheat, rapeseed, maize, or soya) directly into the cover crop (alfalfa, clover, peas, etc.). This technique is called under-sowing.

Is no-till farming really the agriculture of the future?

The first impression is that you lose the symbolism of the hard-working farmer behind his plough! One might even be tempted to think that it’s farming for couch potatoes! Quite the contrary! Making the ecosystem more fertile implies adding nutrients to the soil. There are various ways of doing that, depending on the crop cultivated, the type of soil, and the field's exposure, but the protocols remain complex and demanding. It is, therefore, a different model, which implies a revolution in terms of the farming system: Diversification of crops, different rotation, permanent soil coverage, and being very precise and rigourous in the application of solutions. You need to be well trained and you need a lot of support. The transitional period lasts between three and five years. To naturally store large quantities of nitrogen, for example, you need to sow legumes for several years.

In fact, it's a virtuous cycle. So the aim is to capitalise on biodiversity?

Yes. The return of biodiversity promotes the development of earthworm populations, which are central to the system: Their tunnels facilitate root penetration, which structures the soil, improving its bearing capacity, and facilitating drainage. Greater biological activity in the soil also improves the soil's filtration capacity. This helps to degrade chemical molecules before they seep into the water table. So we have a natural biological filter that prevents the pollution of groundwater and preserves the environment.

Does soil conservation farming reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

No tillage means no tractor and fewer CO2 emissions. Conservation farming is also a very effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon in the soil in the form of organic matter. Hence the benefit of reduced soil disturbance, crop residue left in the field, and the development of cover crops.

The environmental benefits of conservation farming are clear. What are the benefits for the farmer?

The farmer's greatest asset really is their soil: Sustainably regenerating and preserving it, therefore, has obvious benefits in the long term. Conservation farming also takes the diversity and specificities of each field into account. But as well as being more environmentally friendly, there are also economic advantages to conservation agriculture: No tillage means less fuel is used, less equipment, fewer breakdowns, and less wear and tear on equipment due to constantly bringing up and crushing stones. It also means fewer weeds (because the space is already taken by a permanent cover crop) and therefore less need for herbicides. When you can produce as much or more by investing less in mechanisation and plant health products, you sustainably increase farms' profit margins.

Does soil conservation farming reduce yields?

Not at all; the aim of conservation farming is to maintain high yields! It enables consistently high yields during the transitional phase. And in the long term, higher profit margins are possible due to the reduction of inputs (fertilisers, plant health products, fuel). A final important detail: conservation farming doesn't mean organic farming, because inputs are still authorised. Their use is just very limited and non-systematic, in very small doses. Once again, the aim is to achieve high yields. Organic farming, on the other hand, has yields that are 40 to 70% smaller, depending on the crop.

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Conversation on conservation farming

When Jean-Luc Forrler, a VIVESCIA agronomic engineer who specialises in soil conservation, meets Stéphane Schumacher, a farmer from the Tardenois region.

Jean-Luc Forrler - Conservation farming was originally developed in Latin America. Intensive clearing of Amazonian forests led to landslides during storms. As a result, farmers started to implement no-till farming with cover crops to keep the soil in place. In fact, we call it conservation farming because the primary objective is to conserve organic matter in the soil and natural resources such as water and the air. Nowadays, I think it's also about keeping farmers on our land…
 

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Stéphane Schumacher - That's why I got into it! I’m based in the Tardenois region. The land here is difficult – sometimes very difficult – to work. It is very clayey. It's what we call heavy soil. The fields are also very steep with lots of stones. So the soil and climate make it difficult for us to earn a decent living as farmers. When I took over the farm in 2003-2004, I realised that if I maintained a conventional system, I didn't have great prospects as a wheat, barley, and rapeseed grower. Especially in a context of high volatility for grain prices, and increasing input and fuel costs.  We had to change system.

Jean-Luc - Changing system is exactly what conservation farming constitutes. Plants and roots do the job of machines. The challenge is to find an alternative to 100%-chemical solutions, which are less and less effective, and to reduce production costs so that farmers can earn a decent living from their profession. Our experience shows that you can even increase yields if the technique is applied correctly. That's why you can't improvise with conservation farming. You need training.

Stéphane - Yes! At the start, I followed a few courses in the Lorraine region. That was where I met Jean-Luc Forrler. I continued to follow his work from afar but at the start, I was on my own.

Jean-Luc - The problem is that very few leading institutes in France took an interest in this technique. In the 90s, we tried to transpose the techniques from Brazil to France but as the climate here is very different, the trials weren't conclusive at first. For a long time, when you worked on conservation farming, you're on your own! It took me 22 years to more or less perfect a farming system that works! And there are still very few advisers capable of providing support to farmers. This technique is totally different to what farmers are used to doing. It requires great rigour: For the first three years, the crop management techniques are very very precise. So is the choice of cover crops, depending on your objectives.

Stéphane - This explains why it was a little difficult for me at the start! I even began to think that my land wasn't suited to conservation farming. Until I joined the VIVESCIAgrosol club, organised by Jean-Luc. I started going on his field trips, and I got the right advice. You mustn't stay on your own. You have to talk to others and learn from them. Conservation farming techniques cannot be applied the same way on two farms with different soil or growing conditions. You will need different cover crops with different sowing dates depending on whether your soil is heavy, clayey, loamy, or chalky. But that doesn't come automatically.

Jean-Luc - The transitional period lasts 2, 3, 4, sometimes 5 years for the soil to adapt to no-till farming. It takes time for the soil to regenerate. 

Stéphane - The advantage, as a farmer, is that you really rediscover the meaning of agronomy. But once again, you need support, which the VIVESCIAgrosol club provides very well. The field trips are organised very locally, which means that the advice is suited to my soil and the local growing conditions. Personally, it helped me change gears in my approach to conservation farming. Even if I believe that I'm still in the transitional period.

Jean-Luc - Stéphane's quite right. By following the protocol for his land, he changed gears. Nowadays, conservation farming is taking off because French agriculture is faced with volatile prices, unresolvable technical problems, and insects that we can no longer get rid of.  Conservation farming provides agronomic solutions to some of these economic problems. And of course, what interests us the most is the overall reduction in operating costs without compromising on yields.

Stéphane - Yes. First of all, I make savings on inputs, namely fuel, fertiliser, and plant health products. All that without reducing yields! Sometimes I even improve them. Also, with less soil disturbance, you also lose less water. Soil quality is improved. Plant emergence is generally better than my neighbours’. It is true that, with a cover crop, our fields don't look as nice as a ploughed field. We get funny looks from some farmers!

Jean-Luc - A lot of people are keeping an eye on what we’re doing though. And as we work out in the open, people can see everything we do. We can't hide anything. When other farmers walk by these fields they can't help seeing, looking; it makes them think… In any case, it leaves no one indifferent! And nowadays, I don't think there's a single farmer that doesn't know what conservation farming is.

Stéphane - Some farmers — colleagues of mine – tell me, "I'm waiting to see how it works out for you before I give it a try"! I can only encourage them to adopt this agronomic approach. And to join the VIVESCIAgrosol club! Being able to talk to an agronomic adviser with Jean-Luc’s expertise — as well as other farmers about their experience – creates real emulation. We encourage each other.

Jean-Luc - The VIVESCIAgrosol club now has 370 members. To work as closely as possible with farmers on all of VIVESCIA's territories, we have 17 groups who meet for a field trip every month. My greatest satisfaction is to see the progress accomplished in just two years by all those who have attempted the initiative. Most of them started out from scratch, and I haven’t heard many people say it didn't work out. The club's main role is to support farmers to ensure things go as smoothly as possible!

Stéphane - And it's also great to see so many young farmers at these meetings!

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Live from a VIVESCIAgrosol field trip!

17 September 2018 - 9.15 am at "Le Balai", a field in the hills above the village of Cuchery: Rolling hills, dazzling sun, a light breeze… We are with agronomic engineer and coordinator of the VIVESCIAgrosol club, Jean-Luc Forrler, a tireless activist for conservation farming. Around 20 farmers are already there. After a few warm handshakes, conversations break out in small groups over a warm coffee. The field trip will soon begin!

VIVESCIAgrosol field trips all follow a certain ritual. Early adopters and recent converts to conservation farming alike, no one wants to miss this monthly meet-up. This agronomic technique cannot be improvised: you need training. And to learn, there's nothing quite like conversations in the field. As a regular says, "you always learn something!".
When Jean-Luc Forrler drums up his troops, everyone circles round to listen to his tips and comments based on a case study: today, the club's members are visiting a field cultivated by Stéphane Schumacher.

The day's host talks about his land and his experience

That's the principle: every VIVESCIAgrosol field trip is organised on one of the members' farms. Stéphane starts by describing the field's characteristics: a steep incline, heavy clay soil with lots of stones…  "In short, it's s****y land!" he concludes with a laugh. Hence the benefit of returning organic matter to the soil with cover crops. It naturally enriches the soil and eliminates the need for tillage — which is difficult in these conditions – protecting the root system, facilitating water infiltration, and avoiding erosion. "In any case, with this slope, I can drive the tractor down the hill, but I can't get back up again. I have to go back to the road and drive all the way round to get back to the top, it's a huge waste of time!". He also explains that he sowed immediately after his barley harvest, and in what conditions. Jean-Luc interjects occasionally to comment on some of Stéphane's choices. There is a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. But the discussions between members soon become very technical for the uninitiated…

Technical news by Jean-Luc Forrler

A conservation farming specialist with 22 years' experience, Jean-Luc can rely on a wealth of experience in the field. An agronomic engineer by training, he also learns from scientific studies and keeps a close eye on experiments conducted by various research organisations and, of course, by VIVESCIA. So he regularly presents the results of these studies to his "troops". "Conservation farming demands rigour!", he often says. "It's not magic! Science explains why it is beneficial to avoid soil disturbance."

Today, Jean-Luc has two items to talk about. First of all, he challenges the trend and logic of early sowing before concluding firmly, "we have to stop doing that!". Second subject of the day: fighting insecticide-resistant pests. He opens a big book and points to some tables and aerial photos that illustrate the results of various insecticide trials in different farming systems. "You can clearly see that the key to fighting pests is the choice of farming system." He goes over the agenda, provides the dates of some important conferences he recommends going to, and the speakers, then it's time to visit the field itself!

Following a particularly hot and dry summer, the soil is parched. Near the top of Stéphane's field, among the remains of barley straw from that summer's harvest, a few rape and fava bean plants — precious auxiliaries for capturing nitrogen in the air – are starting to emerge. "At this time of the year, they should be 15 cm tall, not 5 cm", notes a connoisseur, Frédéric, one of the farmers on the field trip. "You can see that it's far more humid further down the hill". As a result, the rape and fava bean plants are far denser there.

Agriculture de conservationA field trip, spade in hand!

Let's be clear: The field trip isn't really a trip! Indeed, on this day, the participants don't explore much of Stéphane's steep field at all. They very quickly gather round Jean-Luc, who has started digging into the soil with his spade. The idea is to get a closer look at it on the surface and underneath. Everyone takes a handfull of earth to examine the cover crops' roots. They discuss clover, Abyssinian mustard, and other legumes (fava bean, vetch, fodder pea, and oats, etc.). They also look for insects or their larvae. People talk about weevils, field mice, caterpillars, slugs and how to fight them. "With the high temperatures this year, the slugs dried out in limey-clay soil. But you need to careful in loam soil, which retains moisture at depth. If it rains, the larvae can hatch and come back up".

Conservation farming is the best remedy for jumping insects like grasshoppers. "With conservation farming, people often say that we work like pigs!” This obviously gets a laugh from the assembled farmers. “Clearly, with cover crops, fields in conservation farming look a little messy next to ‘neatly combed’ ploughed fields with regular furrows. But the most important thing is that it works! In well-prepared fields, good soil coverage is a major obstacle for grasshoppers, so it is very rare for us to have problems with them".

In conservation farming, the main challenge is to preserve the ecosystem. "As long as you spray insecticides that mess up your ecosystem, you will never be up to create a reliable farming system. Is that clear?" says Jean-Luc, firmly but with a smile. That said, he’s not dogmatic. His main concern is the yield, and the farmers' best interests: "So ideally, you don't want to use insecticides," he goes on. "But it's also vital to save your crops. So if you need to spray, you spray! In small doses, and not just any insecticide! If you catch it early in the outbreak, a dose of 0.1 is quite enough".

Naturally, everyone compares Stéphane's field to their own ("I wouldn't have dared to do that!"), people ask their neighbours ("When did you sow? I should have done the same thing…"). One of the participants asks Jean-Luc about moths. "Moths come out at night. So there's no point spraying during the day. You need to do it between midnight and 1 AM. But you don't need to spray just because there are a few small nibbles! If I were you, I would leave it."

Jean-Luc is bombarded with questions! Sometimes two or three at the same time! Everyone talks about what they have done, explains problems they have encountered: Slugs, little snails, birds... Jean-Luc answers unfailingly… He makes diagnostics, suggests specific evidence-based solutions depending on the member's soil and growing conditions, reminds the person of the relevant technique depending on their soil. He encourages and reassures them… His presentation is smattered with anecdotes when needed, recounting the misfortunes of certain farmers who did not follow the protocol. He knows every plot in VIVESCIA's territory and what's going on in the region's fields, including those who plough their land. "And in identical conditions," he likes to remind his audience, "conventional farmers don't have better rapeseed than those who use no-till farming!"

The church in Cuchery rings out for midday. It's already time to conclude this field trip. Some return to their cars. But those who have not had a chance to ask Jean-Luc their questions go to extra time. Others yet linger nearby: you can always learn something from your neighbour's experience and the advice Jean-Luc gives them…

Epilogue...

Jean-Luc eventually returns to his car with a big smile. "It's like that every time. I get bombarded with questions on loads of different subjects. So the VIVESCIAgrosol club's field trips are no walk in the park for me! But it makes me happy to see that more more farmers are making their first steps in conservation farming, that they are persevering, and that they are making progress. About a year ago, the VIVESCIAgrosol club had around 100 members. Now there are more than 350 of them. To stay in close contact with them, I coordinate 17 groups divided over the eight departments in VIVESCIA's territory; with one field trip per month for each group".  The price of success? No answer… Jean-Luc waves goodbye modestly and walks off with a little smile. He has a meeting this afternoon with an organisation that would like to benefit from the dynamic he has given to conservation farming. It really is the price of success…
 

Did you say "conservation farming"?

Soil conservation farming is an agronomic approach with a clear environmental bent, but not just that! Sure, it is based on a series of farming techniques (including no-till) that promote biodiversity and prevent erosion, but when you can produce as much or more while spending less on mechanisation and plant health products, you sustainably increase farms' profit margins.

Quotes from farmers who have adopted conservation farming

"I would never go back! With no-till, I have cut my costs in half and I grow just as much as before… And as much as my neighbours who haven't adopted this approach! I am 56 years old. I should have started 10 years ago!"

Frédéric 

"I protect my soil. It's important for the future of my farm!"

Sylvain

"My input and fuel consumption have fallen drastically. I went from 200 litres of heavy fuel oil per hectare, to 40 or 50 litres! And I can see that there is more life in my soil. There is no more erosion, no more earth sliding down onto the road at the bottom of my field. And my yields have not fallen. On the contrary!"

Stéphane

"We call it conservation farming because the primary objective is to conserve organic matter in the soil and natural resources such as water and the air. Nowadays, I think it's also about keeping farmers on our land…”

— Jean-Luc Forrler, "Soil conservation" project manager